We all know that bad habits can be hard to break, and for many people bad eating habits are harder than most. So we recommend a gradual approach. You don’t have to change your whole eating routine overnight.
Before you get started, you’ll want to consider a food log to discover your eating clock. To begin your journey, you have to first figure out the eating clock you are on now. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to begin the steps.
Note that these are just a basic outline of the steps. A more complete picture can be found in Buddha’s Diet, a book that provides the blueprint for how to make this new style of eating work in your own life and schedule.
The first true step of Buddha’s Diet is to confine your eating to 12 hours a day. Don’t worry about changing what you eat or how much you eat – just do it all within 12 hours. The most natural schedule for most people is something like 7am – 7pm or 8am – 8pm, but choose a window that works for you. If you work an early shift, maybe you need to have breakfast at 6am.
If you’re a late-riser (or a college student), or breakfast has never really been your thing, maybe you want to start your eating day even later – but try not to push it to late on the evening side. There is some evidence that eating late at night can be problematic, especially when you’re trying to lose weight. We don’t know exactly why this is, but it may be that the body has a harder time dealing with all those calories when your metabolism is operating out of sync with your circadian rhythm. (This is especially tricky if you have to work a nightshift. Recent studies suggest nighttime work and daytime sleep makes weight loss more challenging, in part because the body seems to burn calories differently when you sleep during the day.)
Whatever window you choose, make sure you finish dinner (and eating – so dessert, snacks, everything) within 12 hours from the start of breakfast.
One thing you may notice at this step is just how much you used to eat after dinner. In the smartphone study, participants ate over a third of their calories after 6pm – and almost all of those were probably unnecessary. As the scientists put it in technical terms, “food consumed after 6:36 p.m. exceeded the maintenance calories requirement.” Whether it’s popcorn while you stream a movie or a glass of wine on the couch, you may be surprised by how much you used to consume in the evening. All of this has to stop. (And yes, drinking counts.)
The next step is to start shrinking your eating window. We’ll start by reducing it by an hour – to 11 instead of 12. Where you want to take that hour from is up to you. For some people, the easiest way to do this is to push breakfast an hour later. If you were eating 7am – 7pm, try 8am – 7pm instead. If you work out in the mornings, postpone breakfast until after that. If you go straight to work, maybe you can bring breakfast with you and make it a mid-morning break once you get settled there. At first you’ll probably be hungry in the mornings, but this is more from habit than biological need. The other option is to take that hour from the evening, bumping up dinner an hour earlier. In general, we will be moving in that direction anyway, toward less food in the evenings, so trying it out now will give you a preview of the next step in the diet. It may feel strange to shave this time off your eating schedule at first. But you’re not going to starve. Unless you are already skeletally thin, you have more than enough reserves to get you through that extra hour.
Again, your goal is to stay on this step for two weeks before moving on to the next. Nobody is perfect, and we understand that everyone will slip up now and then. There’s even some reason to believe a little bit of ‘cheating’ on a diet can be healthy. (We have a chapter on that coming.) But if you’re having more than one cheat day a week, you haven’t mastered the step. Too many cheat days equals erratic eating. And erratic eating means you’ve landed yourself back in Step 0.
The 10-hour window can be challenging, especially if you’ve been used to eating a lot outside of these hours. Even if the other steps have been relatively easy, this may be the one that takes more than two weeks to get right. Don’t worry too much about that – you will master the step, just as you’ve mastered the others. It may simply take a bit longer.
One thing you can do as you are planning your hours is to consider what your life is like at this very moment. For example, it’s probably not a great idea to start this diet over the holidays when you’ll be expecting to join lots of big, late dinners or parties, and not ideal to start while adjusting to a new work routine either. While Buddha’s diet isn’t nearly as restrictive as some (a carb-free Thanksgiving can be pretty depressing) it’s still one more thing to take on during a busy and stressful time when eating schedules are often disrupted.
You will have noticed weight loss in Step 3, maybe even quite a bit, especially if you were eating well outside the 10-hour window before. If you are already seeing good results, you may want to stay on that schedule for a few extra weeks and see if that weight loss continues at the rate you like. However, the goal of this diet and the way to reap the most benefits is by reducing to 9 hours.
One thing you’ll likely find with a 9-hour eating window is that you don’t need to eat as much at dinner. This seems counterintuitive – after all, this dinner has to last you 15 hours until breakfast! But you’ll be asleep most of that time, and your body will naturally slow down. Because dinner will now inevitably be closer to lunch, you just won’t be as hungry. (Of course, what you eat at these meals will also affect how hungry you are – and we have an entire chapter on this in the book.)
Once you’re on the 9-hour window, you’re on Buddha’s Diet. Congratulations, you’ve done it. You are what Buddha might call a sottapana, a stream-enterer. It is now only a matter of time before you reach your weight loss goal.
Not only that, but you will have also changed your eating habits. Forever. That mindless grazing you used to do at night? Gone. The thoughtless snacking throughout the day to combat boredom and stress? Finished. The free-for-all buffet of bad choices? Over. Your mind has undergone a change as much as your body has. You’ll see this in the form of greater discipline, more selective choices, and increased mindfulness about what and when to eat. When the hours and the things you eat take on increased importance, it quickly becomes easier to move away forever from the free-for-all foraging of your old life.